Dreaming big in a small country

Author: MISTI

When Miguel Brechner started planning a new ambitious plan to foster a new generation of data scientists in Uruguay and Latin America, he immediately thought of MIT. “There is no question that MIT is a world leader in science and technology. In Uruguay we are a small country, but we dream big.” Brechner is president of Plan Ceibal, an internationally awarded public initiative that has as main goals to distribute technology, promote knowledge, and generate social equity by widening access to digital technologies.

In 2019, Uruguayan public institutions like Plan Ceibal, ANII (Agencia Nacional de Investigación e Innovación), and UTEC (Universidad Tecnológica del Uruguay) began collaborating with MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) and the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL). The partnership supports 60 Latin American students that are part of the Program in Data Science, a program which includes online courses from MITx and on-site workshops run by J-WEL and MISTI. Local students include CEOs, entrepreneurs, engineers, economists, medical professionals, and senior administrators.

The MISTI Global Startup Labs (GSL) program, now in its 20th year, has expanded its partnerships to include Uruguayan institutions to promote entrepreneurship and data science across Latin America. GSL is a unique program designed to offer the opportunity to blend digital technologies and entrepreneurship in emerging regions in the world. Since 1998, hundreds of MIT students have traveled to more than 15 countries to be part of the program that has benefited thousands of technology entrepreneurs around the world. GSL instructors are MIT graduate and undergraduate students, selected among many applicants from all over the institute. GSL programs in different countries are uniquely crafted based on the needs of the local partners, and MIT student instructors take the lead teaching app and web development, coding, data science, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship.

The new GSL, one of the first to be run over Independent Acitivities Period, took place during January in Montevideo. The Uruguay program focused specifically on machine learning and the business opportunities of the technology. The local student participants had previously taken courses from the MITx MicroMasters in Data Science, and the GSL workshop gave them the opportunity to experience project-based learning in data science. This hands-on experiential immersion in the subject matter is the core methodology of the GSL program.

More than 30 graduate and undergraduate students applied to be part of GSL in Uruguay this year, and 13 were selected to be part of the workshop in Montevideo. Eduardo Rivera, managing director for Uruguay, explained the process: “Recruiting students for GSL is always a challenge. We look for expertise and experience teaching, but also for team players and risk-takers. The team is composed of students from different disciplines and levels of studies, which makes the experience a unique opportunity for our students to learn from their MIT peers in new and challenging contexts.” Rivera adds, “At MIT, we are fortunate to have plenty of talented and passionate students, willing to cross borders and oceans to teach and learn.”

Over the course of a month, the local students were taught how to build prototypes, create business models, and pitch presentations. The class pursued projects ranging from predictive maintenance to autism detection to logistics optimization. The final results were presented in a pitch event hosted in Zonamerica, Uruguay’s premier hub for technology and innovation.

“Working with our local students was a truly unique and unforgettable opportunity,” says electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) senior Ryan Sander. “I’m certain I learned just as much from the students as they learned from us. What really left an impression on me was observing not only how bright our students are, but also how passionate these people are about solving real-world problems with high impact.”

For MBA student Kenny Li, the opportunity to interact with the local students was broadening. “In today’s world, you need to be able to understand people’s cultures, how do they approach business, how they interact at work …GSL gave me a great learning opportunity to understand the global context of entrepreneurs.”

When not teaching classes, the MIT students were able to visit various places around Montevideo, including the beautiful beaches of Punta del Este, the neighboring city of Buenos Aires, and relaxing getaways to Colonia. After classes, the teaching team was steps away from the beach and could wind each day down with a beautiful sunset, soaking up the warm summer weather in January.

Rivera finds these cultural connections to be one of the major benefits of the program. “At MISTI, we are certain that international teaching activities contribute not only to the academic formation of the students but also give them valuable tools to interact in multicultural environments and confront new challenges in different locations. For future global leaders, this is a unique opportunity. We often hear from our students that MISTI experiences are life-changing, not only in professional life but also in their personal life.”

“The weekends and weekday evenings were a great way for us to bond with each other and our students,” says Victoria Pisini, a senior in the MIT Sloan School of Management. “We went to beaches together, traveled to different cities, and shared a lot of unforgettable moments.”

The MIT students participating in this year’s GSL were Amauche Emenari (EECS PhD student), Devin Zhang (MBA student), Evan Mu (EECS PhD student), Geeticka Chauhan (EECS PhD student), Hans Nowak (MBA student), Julian Alverio (EECS MEng student), Kenny Li (MBA student), Madhav Kumar (MIT Sloan PhD candidate), Maya Murad (Leaders for Global Operations master’s and PhD student), Ryan Sander (EECS student), Taylor Elise Baum (EECS PhD student), Tiffany Fung (MBA student), and Victoria Pisini (MBA student).

GSL programs are planned in multiple countries for summer 2020 and Independent Activities Period 2021, and there are still a small number of available opportunities for instructors this summer.

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